Untimed tests: ‘not such a crazy idea’

Untimed tests — aren’t such a crazy idea, opines Robert Pondiscio in the New York Daily News. In response to the opt-out movement — 20 percent of students skipped New York’s state exams — this spring’s test takers will be allowed as much time as they want.

Dropping time limits won’t invalidate the results, writes Pondiscio. Research shows extra time helps students with learning disabilities, but has no significant effect for students without disabilities.

Most state math and reading tests are “power” tests rather than “speed” tests, according to University of Pennsylvania psychometrician Andrew Porter. Power tests “are designed so that nearly all students will be able to complete all items within the allotted time.”

“Education officials seem to think that allowing unlimited time will give parents one less reason to complain about test pressure,” writes Pondiscio. He doubts it will work. “The real source of test pressure is not the clock, it’s adults pressuring kids to perform.”

Any leveling or reduction in the number of parents refusing to let kids sit for state tests this year will likely be a function of New York’s moratorium on linking test scores to teacher evaluations. School administrators and teachers are less likely to transfer their anxieties to students, wittingly or unwittingly.

The moratorium ends in 2020.

I’ve worked under deadline for most of my life. I do the best I can in the time and space I’ve got. Then I stop. I find unlimited time very stressful.

New SAT requires more reading

My 16-year-old niece won’t take the new SAT, which debuts in March. Uncertainty about the redesigned SAT — and fears that it will be harder — persuaded her to take the ACT instead. Apparently, she’s not the only one.

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

The new SAT will demand more sophisticated reading skills — even in math — experts tell the New York Times.

It will be harder for students from non-English-speaking families to excel in math, Lee Weiss, the vice president of precollege programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

SAT dropped the vocabulary section of the test, saying it forced students to learn arcane words. But the new exam features longer reading passages that “contain sophisticated words and thoughts in sometimes ornate diction,” reports the Times.

The math problems include “a lot of unnecessary words,” said Serena Walker, a college-bound junior at Boston’s Match charter school, who was working on a practice quiz.

“An anthropologist studies a woman’s femur that was uncovered in Madagascar,” one question began. She knew a femur was a leg bone, but was not sure about “anthropologist.” She was contemplating “Madagascar” just as she remembered her teacher’s advice to concentrate on the essential, which, she decided, was the algebraic equation that came next, h = 60 + 2.5f, where h stood for height and f stood for the length of the femur.

“Students will need to learn how to wade through all the language to isolate the math,” wrote Jed Applerouth, who runs a national tutoring service, in a blog post. The new math test is 50 percent reading comprehension, he estimated.

The Times asks: How Would You Do on the New SAT? Check it out. I thought the math questions were ridiculously easy. Are they making the reading harder and the math easier?

Opt-out leaders reject NY test changes

An anti-testing rally at Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in March. Photo: Justin Weiner

New York students will take untimed tests this spring, said Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia.

“Thousands of students boycotted last year’s tests, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to form a testing task force that called for a complete overhaul of the state’s learning standards and assessments,” reports Chalkbeat NY.

Elia also promised to give teachers more say in reviewing test questions and to shorten the length of tests.

Opt-out leaders weren’t impressed, saying parents won’t be appeased by minor changes.

“This is a pretty useless response to the opt-out movement,” Brooklyn teacher Jessica Klonsky wrote on Facebook. “People were not opting their children out of the tests because they didn’t have enough time to take them. They opted out because the tests and their preparation take up too much time as it is. Now they are going to take up more time!”

“More time for students to be frustrated on flawed state tests isn’t the answer,” Carl Korn, a state teachers’ union spokesman, responded in a statement.

Higher is better

Computer use widens writing gap

group elementary school students in computer class Writing essays on a computer, instead of using pencil and paper, helped high-performing fourth graders, but hurt average and low performers, concludes a new analysis of a 2012 federal study.  Computer use “may have widened the writing achievement gap,” warned researchers.

The Department of Education is pushing computerized tests, which are “more efficient and cheaper to grade,” writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay. That could affect black, Latino and low-income students disproportionately.

In the study, high-performing students — the top 20 percent of the test takers — produced an average of 179 words per assignment on the computer, three times the number of words that the bottom 20 percent produced.  They also used spellcheck, backspace and other editing tools far more often. The researchers found that these high-performing students were more likely to have access to a computer and the Internet at home.

Teaching keyboarding and editing, giving students practice writing on a computer and buying child-sized keyboards could help, says Steve Graham, an Arizona State professor. While some fourth graders type at 25 word per minute, the average 12 words per minute and some are even slower.

Even handwriting advocates back teaching students to type, writes Barshay. University of Washington Professor Virginia Berninger thinks cursive writing instruction has “neurological benefits to the developing brain.” But she also supports teaching touch typing. “If we’re going to give them the annual test by computer, by golly, teach them how to use the computer. It’s not fair if we don’t.”

Everyone’s Going To College

I’m not one who believes that the purpose of our K-12 education system is, or should be, to prepare everyone for college.  Most people don’t attend, or even need to attend, a university, and neither do most need even an associate’s degree.  Our schools should be flexible enough to prepare our top students to attend universities and colleges, and everyone else should get a decent education that can help the student become a self-sustaining, independent, contributing member of society.  It would be great if most of our graduates could correctly perform basic mathematical calculations involving fractions and percents and could weave several coherent sentences together into a paragraph worth reading.  “College for all” is fluff without meaning.

I continue to be surprised by the large number of people who don’t hold that view.  I’ve read about several school districts, my own included, that have already changed or are looking into changing their graduation requirements to match the 4-year university entrance requirements (in California, those are the CSU/UC a thru g requirements).  Does anyone truly believe that everyone should, or that everyone needs to, go to college?  Does anyone truly believe that every K-12 student could meet university entrance requirements?  We do kids a disservice when we send them the message that they’re failures if they don’t go to college.

Three days ago I posted about Colorado’s giving the ACT or SAT to every high school junior.  They’re not the only state:

Delaware announced today that instead of giving the Smarter Balanced assessment in grades 3-8 and 11 as it did last year, it will administer the test only in grades 3-8, and use the SAT in high school in 2015-16.

Delaware is just the latest in a crop of states that have jilted PARCC or Smarter Balanced for college-entrance exams recently. In the last few weeks, we’ve reported to you that Colorado ditched PARCC for the SAT, and Montana dropped Smarter Balanced for the ACT.

The Old Switcheroo

According to teacher Michael Mazenko on Diane Ravitch’s blog, Colorado was being kinda sneaky when it switched from requiring all high school juniors to take the ACT to requiring the SAT:

This week, David Coleman and College Board pulled off a big coup in both Illinois and Colorado by getting state departments of education to shift from the ACT to the SAT for the state-mandated junior college exam. These are the only two states to require a college test in high school, and both states had history with ACT going back more than a decade. In Colorado, this decision was announced yesterday, December 23, 2015, just as CDE closed for the holidays, and schools were out on break. While Eric Gorski of Chalkbeat did an admirable job reporting the news, there were few people around to answer significant questions. Many in Colorado’s education community are critical and suspicious of the unprofessional timing of the announcement.

Here in Colorado, the decision by CDE to contract with SAT rather than ACT was shocking to say the least. To begin, the state has been dragging its feet on this decision for nearly eight months for no clear reason. And, up until today, every indication was that the state would remain with ACT. Yet, here we are with a surprise announcement to switch testing companies in the middle of the year. The state has done a huge disservice to schools and students by voting for this significant change so late in the year with little time to prepare for it. And, it’s not just switching from ACT to SAT. College Board has announced a significant re-design of its test, the SAT. Thus this spring’s test is an entirely new SAT for which students and educators have no context, piloting, data, score comparison, training, or understanding of the new format. I am deeply concerned for junior-level students who will be asked to take an entirely new test, blind, and allow that test to become part of their permanent academic record…

Both ACT and SAT carry a significant decrease in test time, but the ACT is preferable for Colorado based on history and experience alone. ACT has been the state and national benchmark for “college readiness” for decades. It is a known commodity that is trusted by Colorado’s students, parents, teachers, and colleges. The state and Colorado schools also have fourteen years of data for student performance on the ACT, and numerous school districts have UIPs written around ACT data. And, now the ACT is aligned with Aspire for grades 3-10 with ACT at grade 11. Thus, the state could have had solid data for practically a child’s full career, and it would have synced with the 14 years of ACT data we already have. With the State Board and CDE indicating a probable withdrawal from PARCC, it only made sense to stay with ACT and use the Aspire for the grades 3-10 test. And those tests significantly decreased test times, which is what parents and the legislature voted for. Interestingly, Colorado’s new “graduation requirements” for the year 2021 according to CDE’s own document use ACT as one required benchmark. They’ve just contradicted their own plan. It seemed logical that Colorado would maintain a trusted relationship with ACT. Thus, the decision to switch to SAT is all the more baffling.

Enough people complained–and/or got some sunlight to shine on the issue–and Colorado might be backpedaling, but just for a year:

Colorado 11th graders may all be taking the ACT college placement exam this spring after all.

Right before Christmas, the state Department of Education announced that Colorado would be switching its mandatory test for high school juniors from the ACT to a new version of the SAT, a product of the College Board.

The decision to switch to the SAT shocked many superintendents, educators and others who were incredulous at the timing and that the state would move away from a long-established exam that drew few if any complaints in an era of anti-testing backlash.

But in an email Monday evening to school district superintendents, Interim Education Commissioner Elliott Asp said the department is working with the two testing providers on a plan that would keep the ACT status quo for one more year.

I wonder if cost was a factor.  How much does it cost to require every junior in the state to take a college entrance test?  Is that a good expenditure of funds?

NYC schools skip Regents exam, raise grad rates 

Graduation rates have soared at New York City schools that don’t require students to take Regents exams, reports the New York Post.

Ten percent of the city’s high schools are allowed to use alternatives to the state exam. Many are “international” schools that cater to immigrants who aren’t fluent in English.

Science students at Pan American International High in Queens.

Science students at Pan American International High in Queens.

Students qualify for graduation by writing essays, doing oral presentations and other projects that are graded by their own teachers.

The graduation rate at Pan American International HS in Queens went from 50 percent in 2014 to 76 percent in 2015, “leap-frogging past even the citywide average of 70 percent,” reports the Post.

Lyons Community School in Brooklyn raised its graduation rate from 46 percent to 65 percent, “while the International Community HS in The Bronx and International HS at Union Square in Manhattan both produced 18 percent spikes.”

Will these students be prepared for success in college or the workforce? Will the district track them to find out?

NY asks more on algebra test — and more fail

“If the percentage of students passing the Algebra I exam falls to 63 percent from 72 percent, and the passing grade is scheduled to increase by 9 points in coming years, should the test be made easier?” That’s the question facing New York state education officials, according to the New York Times.

In 2013, the State Board of Regents decided too many high school graduates were unprepared for college. They revamped English and Algebra I exams required for graduation and made plans to raise the passing score to a “college-ready” level.

Pass rates have fallen on new Core-aligned exams. Statewide, less than a quarter of students met the “college-ready” level in Algebra I. Here are sample questions, which seem easy to me.

It’s even worse in New York City, where “only 52 percent of students passed the 2015 exam, down from 65 percent the previous year on the old exam,” reports the Times. “Just 16 percent reached the ‘college-ready’ level.”

Among the ideas the city is considering: having fifth graders take math with a specialized instructor instead of one teacher for all subjects; teaming up with local universities to get more sixth- and seventh-grade math teachers certified in math instruction; creating summer programs for middle- and high-school students who are struggling in math; and training middle-school and algebra teachers in how to address students’ “math anxiety.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged that all students will have access to algebra in eighth grade by 2022, and all students will complete algebra by the end of ninth grade.

At Park East High School in Manhattan, most students enter doing math below grade level, yet 91 percent of students who took the Algebra I Regents this year passed it.

Ninth graders have two periods of algebra each day, which crowds out art, music and health.

Overtested? Not really

“The U.S. is not a country of heavy testing,” says Andreas Schleicher, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education director.

Andreas Schleicher

Andreas Schleicher

Analyzing PISA survey data from more than 70 countries, Schleicher concludes that the U.S. ranks “just below average” in the frequency of standardized tests, writes Jill Barshay in the Hechinger Report.

High-performing Asian countries, the Netherlands and Belgium test often, he said. “More than a third of 15-year-olds in the Netherlands said they took a standardized test at least once a month,” reports Barshay. “In Israel, more than a fifth said they took a monthly standardized test.”

Only 2 percent of U.S. students take standardized tests every month, while the OECD average is 8 percent.

Ninety-seven percent of U.S. 15-year-olds said they took a standardized test once or twice a year. That’s “about the same share as in Finland,” writes Barshay.

Perhaps Finnish schools spend less time on test prep.